Legally Blonde at 20

Legally Blonde was released in the US on July 13th, 2001, and in the UK on October 26th, 2001.

Even after 20 years, Legally Blonde’s feminist legacy still perseveres in empowering women by dismantling the blonde stereotype through a strong female character. In 2017, Reese Witherspoon told the Wall Street Journal, “At least once a week I have a woman come up to me and say, ‘I went to law school because of Legally Blonde.’” Witherspoon stars as Elle Woods, a sorority president studying fashion merchandising at the fictional California University Los Angeles, who is deeply in love with her college sweetheart, Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis). When Warner enrolls at Harvard Law School, he aims to find a more serious girl than Elle to marry, but Elle will stop at nothing to win back the man of her dreams and enrolls at Harvard Law herself.

At it was the early 2000s, it was easy to compare Elle to Paris Hilton, who was frequently dismissed as stupid because of her blonde hair, stupendous wealth, and the tiny chihuahua that she carried by her side. When Legally Blonde was released in 2001, Witherspoon, who was only 25 at the time, told cinema.com about how she was victimised in her own career by the blonde stereotype. “I’ve heard it all before,” she said. “I’ve been told that I’m not sexy enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough. And yes, I’ve been told that I was too blonde which essentially means all of those things rolled into one.” She added that making Legally Blonde was her “own private campaign against a lot of prejudices and stereotypes.” We get to see Elle demonstrate and develop her intelligence over the film’s runtime, whereas, in the real world, Hilton fought for decades to prove that, beyond her glamorous blonde image, she’s a smart businesswoman.

When Elle believes Warner is going to propose to her at dinner that night, she goes shopping for the perfect dress with two of her sorority sisters. When a sales assistant overhears Elle talking about how special she wants to look, she grabs a red dress from the sale rack and whispers to her colleague, “There’s nothing I love more than a dumb blonde with daddy’s plastic.” She tries to advertise the dress as brand-new, but Elle knows better. “Is this low-viscosity rayon? With a half-loop top-stitching on the hem?” she asks, excitedly. The sales assistant tells her, “Absolutely. It’s one of a kind.” But Elle completely destroys her. “It’s impossible to use a half-loop top-stitching on low-viscosity rayon. It would snag the fabric,” she says. “And you didn’t just get it in. I saw it in June Vogue a year ago. So If you’re trying to sell it to me for full price, you picked the wrong girl.” This scene highlights how Elle looks like she can be easily manipulated, but her expert knowledge about fashion both protect her and prove she’s worth more than surface-level judgments. It even demonstrates some early-Law skills. Elle has a knack for retaining information, an eye for detail, and knows how to catch people out when arguing her case. Plus, it shows that Elle’s fashion merchandising major isn’t frivolous, nor was it something she did passively. These are the very skills that prevail in the film’s iconic courtroom scene when she wins her case.

Elle’s affluent background puts her ahead, but she still maintained a 4.0 grade-point average and got into Harvard Law based on her own hard work — studying instead of partying, which ultimately scored her a 179 in the LSATS (an almost perfect score). Elle’s video-essay certainly turned the heads of the admissions board, full of middle-aged white men, as she showcases her affluent lifestyle and intelligence while highlighting her feminine, bubbly personality alongside how good she looks in a bikini by her pool. Some of the men are confused by the idea that a fashion major like Elle would apply to Harvard Law. They make subtle fun of some of her extracurricular activities, such as being in a Ricky Martin music video and designing a line of faux fur panties, but they’re still impressive as they show a keen interest in music and animal welfare. “A philanthropist,” one says, as fun satirical commentary, before another, defeated, says, “Elle Woods, welcome to Harvard.”

When Warner sees Elle on campus, he asks in disbelief, “You got into Harvard Law?” Her iconic response, “What? Like it’s hard?” sums up the film’s entire premise. It dismantles the dumb blonde trope in one, concise, witty, and comedic line. Halfway through the film, Elle realises that she isn’t ever gonna be good enough for Warner, despite the fact that they both took the same exam, got into the same law school, and are taking the same classes. In one of her first classes, Elle is humiliated in front of Warner and his new fiancée, Vivian (Selma Blair), when Professor Stromwell (Holland Taylor) highlights how she hasn’t done the reading. These things encourage Elle to up her game — she buys a laptop, gets books from the library, and starts doing better when questioned in class. She is in competition with Vivian, but she puts in the work which is what she’s used to doing when she wants something — she doesn’t just rely on her looks.

Elle is a strong female character, which is another trope that Legally Blonde challenges. Entertainment reporter Lucy Ford wrote her dissertation on the film’s post-feminism and reimagination of the strong female character trope. When speaking to the BBC in 2018, Ford said her dissertation “analyses the portrayal of strong women on screen and how they had frequently been limited. It’s about how strong or clever women were often portrayed as masculine — but how Elle Woods dispels those ideas.” Ford added that femininity has been used to dismiss women’s achievements and these themes are still relevant today. Legally Blonde celebrates femininity and proves that being feminine and/or having feminine interests doesn’t make you stupid, nor is it a sign of weakness. Elle enjoys being feminine and stays true to herself and her values throughout the film. She doesn’t shrink herself down in order to fit other people’s expectations and this healthy mindset is ultimately why she’s able to succeed. Elle has a strong sense of self which only grows stronger when she realises her worth and outgrows Warner. At the start, he thought he was too good for her, but by the end she realises it’s her who’s too good for him.

Legally Blonde indulges in common tropes like Elle crying over Warner dumping her while eating chocolates and watching romance films in bed. If this were a different film, Elle might’ve dyed her hair brunette and ditched her girly wardrobe, as part of her studying montage, in order to be taken more seriously. Instead, she remains blonde and glued to her signature colour. “Whoever said orange was the new pink was seriously disturbed,” she declares. Legally Blonde celebrates the stereotypical female experiences we’re often judged for, but also teaches us that we’re worth more.

Lots of the conflict Elle faces in Legally Blonde comes from men judging her. When Warner breaks up with Elle, he tells her, “I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.” She responds with, “So, you’re breaking up with me because I’m too… blonde?” While at Harvard, Elle is delighted when Professor Callahan chooses her for his internship, but later realises that she didn’t ‘earn’ anything. She tells Callahan’s junior law partner Emmett (Luke Wilson), “Callahan only gave me that internship because he liked the way I looked, which he made clear tonight when he tried to feel me up.” When the incident happened, Elle rejected him and called him a “pathetic asshole,” proving that she knows her worth enough to stand up for herself. However, she isn’t made of steel and the incident leads her to quit because she thinks she’s trying to become someone she isn’t, but Emmett says what if she’s trying to become someone she is. “Callahan never saw me as a lawyer, he just saw me as a piece of ass. Just like everybody else.” It’s not until Stromwell overhears Elle in the salon and says, “If you’re going to let one stupid prick ruin your life, you’re not the girl I thought you were” that Elle returns. This support from another woman puts everything into perspective for her. In addition to this, Brooke Taylor-Windham (Ali Larter) shows solidarity by firing Callahan and appointing Elle as her lead attorney, under Emmett’s supervision.

One of Elle’s biggest traits is her sunshine personality which oozes kindness. The film continues to highlight female connection and solidarity, especially through the depiction of sorority sisters. Brooke only discloses her career-destroying alibi with Elle because they were both in the same sorority at different times which means they have an unbreakable bond of sisterhood. There’s also Elle’s friendship with timid Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge) who works in the salon, who she helps to get her dog back from her abusive ex and helps find her stride with a new man.

Although Legally Blonde was directed by a man, it’s based on the book of the same name by Amanda Brown, and was adapted for screen by screenwriting duo Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith. Speaking at Vulture Festival in 2015, McCullah said the film originally had a different ending. “It kind of ended right at the courthouse after [Elle] won the case. She was on the courthouse steps and everyone was coming up and congratulating her and she had this big kiss with Luke Wilson.” It then cut to a future Elle and a blonde Vivian starting their own Blonde Legal Defense Club in law school. “It was just kind of a weak ending,” she said. “The kiss didn’t feel right because it wasn’t a rom-com — it wasn’t about their relationship.” Test audiences said they wanted to see Elle succeed, which is why they rewrote it to include Elle’s graduation. This ending still allowed Elle and Vivian to ditch Warner and become friends, but Emmett as a love interest remained more of a subplot even though they still ended up together. Their romance throughout the film was always centred on Elle’s character development as a law student anyway, which served the main story.

While Legally Blonde is a chick-flick, it still carries a lot of substance, which was important to Witherspoon, who aimed for positive messaging for women. “Too much of our focus in society is devoted to superficial impressions about people. Appearances come first, and we often don’t go beyond that in judging people which is a terrible thing. Look at Elle. […] At the beginning of the film, she has no goals other than to get married and lead a pampered, privileged life. But she evolves into a determined young woman eager to pursue her ambitions. She overcomes the stereotypes associated with being an attractive blonde.” Witherspoon adds, “I think that’s a pretty good message that the film sends out. That you can be the way you are, look the way you want, and still achieve your goals if you work at them.”

Legally Blonde tells us it’s important to stay true to yourself, to work hard, and to support one another. With a third film in the works, Witherspoon thinks the film’s messaging is still as important as ever. “[Elle] was a feminist, you know,” she told Today in 2018. “She enjoyed getting dressed up and having her hair done, but she was also fierce and knew what she wanted and was determined to get it.” Legally Blonde was, and still is, such a strong and empowering film for women. It was a cultural reset.

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Toni Stanger

Freelancer writer on mainly film and television, but sometimes dabbles in celeb culture. Covers mostly horror and female-led media for Screen Queens.